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Investing in 21st Century Energy Infrastructure

Apr 25, 2016
In The News

The energy sector is undergoing significant change. Some lawmakers would have you believe it’s the result of too much regulation, but that’s not the case. New technology, coupled with changes in markets, shifting consumer demand and improved efficiency, are all transforming the energy sector. It’s time Congress supports electric and gas infrastructure modernization efforts that will help further this transformation. 

Last month, the Energy Information Agency outlined some significant changes in electric generation, and they really shouldn’t surprise anyone. The report found ongoing movement toward natural gas and away from coal, oil and nuclear energy. Renewable wind and solar generation continues to increase, and it’s projected to climb this year.

Utilities all across the nation also recognize the old financial and electricity delivery model is giving way to a more complex customer relationship. Today, some customers are no longer simply receiving power — they are delivering power to the grid and taking control of their energy needs. 

The availability of improved technologies like microgrids, combined heat and power systems, energy storage and individualized energy management systems are facilitating consumers’ ability to access renewable, clean energy and lower their electricity bills. These trends are promising and are helping produce a sustainable clean energy economy. 

However, Congress must do more. We must continue making investments to support renewable energy, and we must invest in modernizing our nation’s energy infrastructure so that it supports the changing economic and environmental conditions of our times. 

Our energy infrastructure is aging. In many parts of our nation, the electric and gas infrastructure used today was built for the economy and energy sector of the 20th century. 

The gas lines that serve major metropolitan regions are old and in desperate need of replacement. Deteriorating, leaky gas pipelines are a public safety and environmental hazard, as well as wasteful and inefficient. Over the last year, we’ve witnessed both a 100,000-gallon crude oil spill onto the California coastline and a massive gas storage facility leak in Los Angeles. The leak forced thousands of people from their homes for long periods of time and released nearly 100,000 metric tons of methane into the atmosphere. 

Repair and replacement of gas pipelines is an essential and expensive undertaking, but moderate- and low-income ratepayers are not able to absorb the rate increases necessary to support this essential work. This forces many utilities to delay improvements
that should be made now. 

Last year, when the House Energy and Commerce Committee was developing a comprehensive energy bill, I proposed an initiative to provide economic incentives to pipeline companies to accelerate work on potentially dangerous lines and to provide assistance to ratepayers to offset higher energy bills. This program would have delivered tremendous benefits to natural gas customers and pipeline companies while improving air quality, promoting more efficient delivery of natural gas and improving safety. 

The electric grid is also extremely vulnerable, and our changing climate is exacerbating power outages. The electric infrastructure is at higher risk from storm surges and coastal inundation. Since 2011, more than 40 extreme weather events here in the U.S. have each cost at least $1 billion in damages. These events forced private and public institutions to consider options for making electricity delivery more reliable and resilient during severe storms while reducing dependence on the fuels that contribute to extreme weather events. 

Technologies are now available to do this. With modest federal investment, we could accelerate the pace of grid improvement. A perfect example of this is the Department of Energy’s recent work with the New Jersey transit system to create the NJ Transitgrid, which incorporates renewables, distributed generation and a microgrid design to assure power for NJ transit facilities during and after extreme weather events. 

As part of the larger energy bill, Democrats worked to create a grant program to support similar innovative state and local government efforts to modernize the electric grid to make it more reliable and resilient.

Unfortunately, the final Republican energy bill passed by the House was designed for the energy sector of the past. Instead of embracing new distributed and renewable technologies, cutting edge energy storage and demand response, the Republican bill subsidized the large, expensive and inflexible facilities and energy sources of the past. The final bill did not include any funding to address some of the significant energy infrastructure issues our nation is facing. 

The transformation in the energy sector is the result of many interrelated factors. Blocking regulations will not turn back this tide. Strategic investments in infrastructure will ensure we have a secure, dependable and safe energy supply for the 21st century. 

Pallone represents New Jersey’s 6th Congressional District and has served in the House since 1988. He is the ranking member on the Energy and Commerce Committee.